Thursday 27 June 2013

Xanadu (1980)

Kira makes an unexpected appearance on an LP cover
Xanadu!  This lively 1980 romance features ample disco music by notable artists, but was until lately mentioned on Wikipedia's list of Films Considered the Worst Ever. So what's wrong with it?  Is it really bad, or just 'so bad it's good'?

There's certainly a division to be made there. 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' (1959) is often counted as a 'so bad its good' campy classic, but in fact is poorly wrought and, worse, boring.  It's considerably more entertaining to watch 1994's 'Ed Wood' and imagine what 'Plan 9' might be like than struggle through the thing. A film needs at least a base level of good, clear storytelling to be worth the watching.

Gene Kelly enjoys a mirror.  'Xanadu' would love to be 'Singin' in the Rain' (1952)
'Xanadu' is not a boring film, so most of its other quirks are excusable, at least when watching for corny entertainment.  'Not boring' probably ought to be qualified.  The plot is very, very slight.  In short (which is to say, in full), a heavenly muse (Olivia Newton-John) comes down to inspire two guys (Michael Beck and Gene Kelly) to open a 1940s/1980s-crossover-themed roller disco.  She and the hairier of the blokes fall in love, which is forbidden.  It's a musical, but the songs really have no impact on the story, and serve mainly to make up the duration. When a song starts, so does a dance sequence, lasting for at least three minutes even where there are no more than twenty seconds of choreographical innovation.  The greatest of these sequences, by some margin, entails shop-window dummies coming alive and jiving in a variety of costumes while Gene Kelly tries on different glitzy outfits.  It's like 'Spearhead from Space' and 'Time and the Rani' together in the same sandwich.

Mercifully most of the songs, and at least one of the dances, are amply entertaining to sustain the viewer. The Electric Light Orchestra, who had completed their move from prog to disco with the previous year's 'Discovery' here contribute five songs, all of which I have on 45s somewhere about.  There's also a duet between Cliff Richard and Olivia-Newton John (O.B.E.), which is unexciting by comparison but is set over a charmingly laughable sequence of images; and an ON-J solo piece, 'Suspended in Time', which I fast-forwarded through.  In it, the muse stands in a flamboyantly boring set and sings the song, without incident, dance, or so much as a change of shot.  The most static performance in a movie musical since 'Climb Every Mountain', and is a work of lesser merit.

Kira in... Muse land?  Heaven?  Valhalla?  The Eighties?

The film has a strong message, but doesn't illustrate it very well.  It wants to tell us that you should live for your art, and if your employer is telling you to cut out your artistic flair and work efficiently for cash you should resign on the spot and go forth to make beautiful things.  In actuality, the painter who resigns to chase his muse ends up co-owner of a disco, which isn't really what he wanted, and seems to leave him as a businessman rather than an artistic innovator.  Perhaps the message is that when you fall in love you can give up on all your other dreams as they'll no longer matter, but that's not a very nice message at all.

It's an unusually relaxing watch, since it's almost wholly devoid of conflict. The film is a long sequence of things turning out ok, with only a fairly slight and dramatically unsatisfying attempt to build up tension towards the end as a disembodied Zeus attempts to forbid Kira and Sonny from loving one another in anything but the most distant and platonic fashion.  When the end comes it doesn't feel triumphal.  ON-J sings 'Xanadu', the title song and the best, but the film fails to end.  More music comes, and with it more dancing.

It's a fun film, and I can see why it has its dubious reputation yet continues to be watched.  Nobody in the production team seems to have looked at the dances and set-pieces and asked themselves whether they're good enough for inclusion in the film, and so a story about true artistic inspiration embarrasses itself by being tacky and bizarre.  It's implied that 'Xanadu', the roller-disco of the title, is an artistic achievement to rival Shakespeare or Mozart.  The film, however, isn't.

P.S. Saskia's verdict on 'Xanadu': you might like it more than 'Zardoz' (1974).  It's so, so inoffensive and friendly.

P.P.S. Roller-discos look cool but I can't imagine many drew in enough punters to sustain themselves - at least not once the seventies were over.

The film and the title track, if you can be tempted

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